DETROIT: The Freer House

31 May

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Many years have passed since our last visit to The Freer House, there’s a special tour today and we have tickets! First, let me tell you a little bit about the man who lived here. Charles Lang Freer made his fortune manufacturing railroad freight cars, a very lucrative business in the late 1800’s. In 1887 Freer began amassing his art collection; while other collectors purchased pieces by Rembrandt, Monet and daVinci, Freer was attracted to Asian art and works by contemporary  American artists; Dwight Tyron, Abbot Thayer, Thomas Dewing, Frederick Church and most notably, James McNeill Whistler. Freer often developed friendships with the artists he collected. At the time of his death he had accumulated 9,500 art objects, more than a thousand of them by Whistler.

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 The home, designed by Wilson Eyre Jr, was built in 1892 in the American shingle-style. Take a good look, it’s elevated slightly from the street, it definitely feels masculine to me, dark colors, leaded glass windows, stately, handsome. Step inside to a large open area, doorways lead to separate rooms. Off the front door is the parlor, if you came to visit this is where you would wait for your host. Much of the house, including this room is undergoing restoration, our docent passes around a case filled with swatches of the original paint colors. Everything was made precisely for the room, the fireplace tucked into the corner, the art in designated spaces, I like all of the unusual angles. This was not a family home, Freer never married, the house was built as the setting for his art. As his collection grew so did his home, additions were made three times. In the main room a large fireplace sits central, furniture is tucked tight against the walls creating a wide walkway to view the art, light fixtures are unique, they look like leaves and twisted vines made from metal.

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We traverse the main floor, reproductions of original art hang on the walls, it’s like being in a tiny art gallery. In a room off to the side is the only original painting to the house, Flapjacks by Frederick Stuart Church. It’s a whimsical piece with bears making and eating flapjacks; they look pretty happy. It was a housewarming gift from Church to Freer. After Freer’s death the painting changed hands several times, it recently showed up at auction, donors bid on it and brought it back home. The original doorbell; a bronze bear with his head cocked listening for the bell to ring, sits in the main room on a side table along with a sconce. In the corner is a safe built by the Detroit Safe Company; in those days people would lock up their silver, Freer also stored art in his. The dining room is a pleasant buttery yellow, just as it was originally. Each room has built-in cabinets and a fireplace along with uniquely shaped ceiling angles.

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I’m pretty excited because on today’s tour we will see the entire house. On the second level many of the rooms are occupied by the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute and Wayne State University and not generally open to the public. Much of the interior has been painted that institutional taupe color, restoration work is ongoing, the hope is to one day have the rooms back to their original colors.The stairway is wide, the side is solid wood panels and a basket-weave screen, it feels very open. Pausing on the landing I notice more of the same leaf and vine light fixtures, wood beams cross the second floor ceiling, a window faces in giving the feeling of being outdoors. At the top of the stairs we have a lovely view of the home’s architectural details, lots of leaded glass windows, arches, wood and of course the art. Bedrooms are now offices, each has a fireplace, built-ins and a window seat.

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The remainder of the house is dedicated gallery space; we move from room to room, a skylight remains in one, a couple of fireplaces have Pewabic tile, leaded glass windows are decorative art themselves. In areas under renovation photographs are displayed showing the original space. We reach what used to be the Peacock Room. In 1904 Freer purchased the Whistler-painted dining room of Frederick R Leyland’s London home. Freer had the room built to the exact dimensions of the Peacock room, for many years peacock’s roamed the grounds here on Ferry Street. I love the giclee reproduction of Rose and Silver: The Princess From The Land Of Porcelain, it hangs in the exact spot the original once occupied. Color photos show how truly spectacular the room was, not only the paintings but the globe pendant gaslight fixtures, the ceiling design. In 1906 Freer donated his entire collection to the Smithsonian Institution with the agreement that everything stayed in Detroit until his death, he funded the Freer Gallery in Washington D.C. at a cost of $1 million. After his death in 1919 everything was moved to the Smithsonian.

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The rain has let up enough for us to walk around the newly revitalized courtyard gardens. Trees and plants reflect Freer’s original combination of American and Asian plants. My favorite thing is the hand-carved, exact replica of the Japanese stone garden lantern. Feel free to check it out next time you’re in Midtown. It’s exciting to see the progress the Freer House members have made from reproductions of original paintings, restoration of rooms to the beautiful courtyard and landscaping. We look forward to our next visit.

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How about some lunch? Shield’s Pizza opened on Woodward across from the DIA on April 8th. For those of you who don’t know, Shield’s was one of the original Detroit-style pizzerias. Shield’s Bar opened at the corner of Davison and Shields Street in Detroit in 1937, they later began making square, deep-dish pizza; that location closed in the 1980’s as they expanded to the suburbs. The space here in the Maccabees Building has turned over several times in the last few years, it now has a completely new look; televisions, sports memorabilia, Detroit nostalgia, funky light fixtures. We sit at the bar, order a square, deep-dish veggie pizza and an antipasto salad. We have great service and the food is delicious. Crisp greens in the salad, their unique dressing, lots of meat. The pizza is that great Detroit style, a little crispy on the edges, tender crust, fresh toppings. After a 30+ year absence, we say Welcome Back!

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Not ready to go home just yet we stop in at Detroit Shipping Company on Peterboro. Located on the upper track is -320 Coffee and Creamery. Here you can get a great cup of coffee or homemade ice cream made right before your eyes with liquid nitrogen. The pizza and salad did us in, having room only for coffee Kris gets a nitro-cold brew and I enjoy a steaming hot cup o’Joe. We relax at a table overlooking the ground floor, lots of food being distributed from the 3 restaurants below. Bold colored canvases peek out from the gallery space opposite me, Kris and I walk over to check them out. Phillip Simpson’s colorful cartoon art lines the walls; I suppose with the name Simpson, you would naturally paint characters from The Simpsons. I like the different smiley-face renditions, as intended, they do their job, I’m smiling.

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